The Fighter (2010) dir. David O. Russell
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Melissa Leo, Jack McGee
By Alan Bacchus
Shame on me for doubting this picture. After all, I had the choice of holding off posting by ‘Best of 2010’ list until I saw this film, but my impatience had me doubting that The Fighter would be able to crack the top ten. After all, the story of a down and out boxer, overcoming the odds to win a title shot is perhaps the oldest story in Hollywood, and also played out. Also, knowing that this once was originally a Darren Aronofsky project, passed off to David O Russell had me questioning the passion of the filmmakers behind this film.
And so what a joy to be shocked to life by Russell’s impeccable skills, a story so perfectly crafted and executed it hits those core, base or fundamental emotions we have toward brotherhood, ambition, survival in life. A true triumph of the human spirit giving us the same sort of chills up our spine as other classics of the genre, Rocky, The Wrestler and Million Dollar Baby.
My DFD colleague Greg Klymkiw described Clint Eastwood’s Invictus as a meat and potatoes film. The Fighter fall into this category as well. We know these characters – so well. Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) and Dickie Eklund (Christian Bale) are half brothers from a working class town Lowell, Massachusetts. Dickie, the eldest who fancies himself once as the ‘pride of Lowell’ is a failed boxer who clings to his one triumph, knocking down Sugar Ray Leonard once in a fight 14 years prior. Now he’s a crack addict with one foot in the grave were it not for his younger brother whom he trains to be the next ‘pride of Lowell’.
Micky Ward, the younger brother, is actually near the end of his career, three losses in a row and who needs a victory to keep him in the game. A painful loss to a heavier fighter cripples the relationship between the two, a loss blamed on Dickie and his headstrong mother/manager Alice (Melissa Leo). Enter Charlene (Amy Adams), a red headed bargirl/college drop out who gives Micky the confidence that if he breaks with the family he could be a success.
And so, Micky is presented an agonizing internal conflict, the desire to live up to the pedestal his brother places him on, and the loyalty and love he deeply desires to give to his family. This is the strongest kind of decision-making we can see in cinema, decisions we ourselves in the audience subliminally make in our heads as we watch the film. We imagine confronting our own older brothers, or dedicated mothers who have nurtured us our whole lives.
The Fighter has the rare spark of truth, a miraculous kind of truth which exists in every moment of the film. Russell impressively mixes the emotions conveyed by Micky’s decisions, Dickie’s heartbreaking fight with substance abuse with the same unique sense of irreverent humour from all of his other films (ie. Flirting With Disaster, Three Kings). Much of the humour comes from the authenticity he finds in the working class milieu of Lowell. Micky’s seven sisters for instance, all of whom look like haggard cougars-in-training pulled from the seediest bar in Lowell. They appear, always together in almost every scene in the background, like a peanut gallery.
Performances are top notch in every role. It’s one of Christian Bale’s best, one which goes beyond the superficial physical transformation he goes through to become an underweight crack addict. We feel the genuine love for his brother and his desire to win no matter kind of trauma he finds himself in. Wahlberg admirably assumes the less showy role, a reactive straight man performance, which usually gets overshadowed by the histrionics of the more rowdy characters. Amy Adams and Melissa Leo both shine as two strong women who antagonize each other with Micky in between. Both are fighters in their own way who won’t back down from each other.
Though it’s a story of two brothers and moves around the very masculine world of professional boxing, The Fighter is not a macho film. It’s a universal story of family, of mothers, daughters, brothers and the inexplicable bond which can push us all towards extraordinary things.